Voices: DeSantis reaps the rewards of his cowardice: Humiliation

The lopsided landslide blowout that resulted from the year-long primary race between former president Donald Trump and Florida governor Ron DeSantis unofficially began in November of 2022, when Mr Trump — then planning his next campaign but speaking in support of then-Pennsylvania Senate candidate Mehmet Oz — bestowed a pejorative moniker on the Sunshine State executive.

As he spoke in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, Mr Trump referred to Mr DeSantis, who also had not yet announced his candidacy in this year’s presidential contest, as “Ron DeSanctimonious”.

For professional Trump-watchers such as your correspondent, the bestowing of a nickname upon an opponent by the ex-president was, at the time, a sign that Mr Trump considered the Florida governor to be a threat to his hopes of regaining his party’s nomination to take on the man who beat him in the 2020 election, President Joe Biden, in 2024.

And as 2023 began, Mr DeSantis did indeed appear to be a formidable foe for the twice-impeached, disgraced former president, who had been the focus of a series of blockbuster congressional hearings which laid out how Mr Trump had schemed and plotted to illegally overturn his election loss to Joe Biden — a kind of self-coup — and fomented a violent riot at the US Capitol by a mob of his supporters who assaulted police officers and destroyed property in an effort to prevent final certification of his loss.

The Florida governor, a former GOP congressman who’d helped found the House Freedom Caucus, might not have ever been thought of as a challenger to Mr Trump but for the ex-president’s vulnerability after his violent exit from the White House.

As Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Channel made every effort to unperson the former president, Mr DeSantis presented a fresh new face who’d built a reputation for antagonising the mainstream press and fighting culture war battles that were the just the sort of thing that got Fox viewers going.

After Mr DeSantis won a second term in Tallahassee by a massive landslide over ex-GOP governor turned Democratic congressman Charlie Crist, Mr Murdoch’s flagship US paper — the New York Post — christened the Sunshine State boss “DeFuture” of the GOP with a triumphant cover page the morning after the midterms.

Unfortunately for Mr DeSantis, his time as a rising star within the Trump-centric GOP was limited, with a countdown clock ticking down towards an expiration date that would come sooner than anyone had thought.

The Florida governor spent months playing coy with the notion of a presidential campaign, even as he promoted a self-congratulatory memoir which would later become a major exhibit in Disney’s lawsuit to stop the state of Florida from taking over the special taxing district encompassing its’ Orlando-area theme parks.

But although he would stretch his dithering over a campaign launch date until late May of last year, his chances of winning the GOP nomination ended on 30 March 2023, when a Manhattan grand jury indicted Mr Trump on charges related to a years-old hush money scheme he’d concocted with his ex-lawyer, Michael Cohen, during the 2016 election.

For most politicians, seeing an opponent on the receiving end of a criminal prosecution is like Christmas, Easter and their birthday all rolled into one glorious package.

But instead of seeing weakness and going straight for Mr Trump’s jugular, Mr DeSantis balked.

Rather than hit out at the former president for allegedly committing multiple felonies, the man who’d risen to prominence on the strength of his endorsement couldn’t bear to speak his name when asked about the charges, telling a reporter: “I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair, I can’t speak to that.”

It was that initial display of weakness — compounded by a bizarre statement in which he pledged to protect Mr Trump from extradition if need be — that set the entire tone for Mr DeSantis’ ultimately futile presidential run, which he announced two months after Mr Trump’s first indictment but just days before the second, a set of federal charges stemming from his alleged unlawful hoarding of classified documents at his Palm Beach, Florida residence.

By that point, Mr Trump’s opponents were making it clear that they were all following the lead of Mr DeSantis by refusing to attack the ex-president for his alleged criminality, even though polling data showed those attacks could make a difference.

Instead, the cowardice exhibited by the Florida governor and his other co-Iowa losers (save for ex-governors Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson) allowed Mr Trump to regain his pride of place among Republicans, even as he faces a combined 91 separate felony counts in four separate jurisdictions.

Another Floridian, ex-GOP congressman Francis Rooney, told The Independent last week that the indictments caused Mr Trump’s base of support to “kind of double” with each successive set of charges.

But Mr Rooney’s analysis ignores the fact that voters have to be convinced to vote against someone, not just to vote for an opponent.

It’s a lesson that the horde of New Jersey Senate hopefuls looking to take on indicted incumbent Bob Menendez appears to be taking to heart, with all of them going out of their way to point out that the Democratic incumbent is (allegedly) a crook.

But Mr DeSantis’ refusal to point out the (alleged) obvious nearly a year ago set the tone for what transpired in Iowa tonight, a humiliating loss to a candidate who is fighting to make it back to the White House so he can stay out of the big house.